No contract, no coffee: Starbucks baristas strike, demand bargaining
Starbucks baristas on strike in Memphis, Tenn. | via @Un1onBarbie on Twitter

In Seattle, Starbucks baristas at CEO Howard Schultz’s home store, The Roastery, brought Scabby the Rat to their picket line. Chants and signs from coast to coast—including in crayon on a Baltimore County, Md., car—declared: “No contract, no coffee!”

At an unidentified Starbucks, Santa had to strike: “Even my elves are in unions!” he said in a film clip. “Shame on you, Mr. Schultz.”

At the Starbucks store at Ashland Ave. and Irving Park Road on Chicago’s North Side, so many customers honored the picket line that at 11 a.m. on Dec. 16—the first day of a 3-day nationwide forced strike—managers closed the store.

“Who shut it down? We shut it down!” the exuberant picketers shouted via bullhorn.

“SHAME ON STARBUCKS” read a big bedsheet banner during what participants called “mega picketing” at three Starbucks St. Louis stores. Minnesota participants, joined by members of the Communist Party club there, thronged to the picket line, despite typical Minnesota December temperatures, even at midday: 5 degrees below zero.

Scabby the Rat on the picket line at the Starbucks Roastery story in Seattle. | Starbucks Workers United Seattle

And in Ithaca, N.Y., at a store the giant chain keeps threatening to close—in retaliation for unionizing—workers added a song for their Jewish customers, just before Chanukah began, sung to the children’s tune of Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel:

“Union, union, union

A fair contract we say.

And if we don’t get it,

We will strike all day.”

The object of all this activity: To force Starbucks’ bosses back to bargaining with the workers who have unionized at 260-plus of the monster coffee chain’s stores since the grassroots organizing drive—aided by Starbucks Workers United (SWU), a Service Employees affiliate—achieved its first success in Buffalo just over a year ago.

The three-day forced strike #DoubleDownPicketing on the weekend of Dec. 16-19 was the latest effort by the workers to get the bosses to bargain in good faith, despite CEO Schultz. There were two short sessions in late October.

In the first, lasting about five minutes, the workers barely began to present proposals when the bosses’ union-buster called a caucus and led management in a walkout. They never came back. The second was even shorter: Bosses refused to talk because hundreds of Starbucks workers nationwide had tuned in via Zoom.

The weekend action, which SWU described as the longest against the giant coffee chain, showed yet again that Starbucks baristas, like other underpaid and overworked workers—especially in fast food eateries, coffee shops, and bars—have had it up to here with corporate exploitation and greed, and have taken to unionizing and to the streets, in response.

They join port truckers, retail workers, adjunct professors, museum workers, Amazon workers, and warehouse workers—among others in a mass movement agitating for union recognition, better pay, safer working conditions and respect on the job, in numbers infrequently seen in decades, and certainly not coast to coast. But that’s what happened here.

They also got wide public support—despite a few “brew your own coffee remarks”—from the Twitterverse.

St. Louis Starbucks workers on the mega-picket line. | via @CMRJB on Twitter

“Switching up my routine to support@SBWorkersUnited,” one tweet said. “This #Union brother won’t cross picket lines. #BoycottStarbucks Solidarity is more than just a word, it’s a conscious action that requires commitment. Be an active part of the #StarbucksStrike. Retweet in #Solidarity.”

“SCABS TRIED TO SLOW US DOWN AND WE CAME BACK STRONGER,” another reported. “#DoubleDownStrike #NoContractNoGiftCards #NoContractNoCoffee #SBWU #UnionStrong.”

“Those big executives that are sitting up in their offices picking their noses all day are about to find out real fast who actually runs the company,” a third tweeter commented.

The strikers picked up heavyweight intellectual backing, too, of a sort. A new study from the Harvard Business School of the nation’s 250 largest corporations, listing the 50 best for workers on various quality of life issues—not just pay, but benefits, diversity, and opportunities for advancement—showed Starbucks was second to last in its category, retail. Only McDonald’s was worse.

“Starbucks earned one of the lowest ratings in the study, placing it in the bottom 50 of the surveyed companies, beneath brands with notably poor reputations for worker treatment including Walmart and Dollar General,” the news story on the study adds. The study didn’t distinguish between unionized and non-unionized firms.

Starbucks’ exact finish in the multifactor rankings could not be determined, from the confusing way it posted its findings. But another pro-worker group posted the survey anyway, noting in irony the Howard Schultz Foundation—yes, the CEO’s non-profit—financed it. The overall #1? AT&T, which is unionized.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.